How Long Can Video in Ebooks Be?

Video PixelsEnhanced ebooks have been a cause of much excitement over the past few years — and with good reason. One of the things that an ebook can do that a paper-and-ink book can’t is to add embedded video and sound. (There are many other ways to enhance an ebook— but those are the most common enhancements.) Here’s a chance to make the book something truly new!

At Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, we have a group that is meeting regularly, discussing enhanced ebooks, led by a long-time digital publisher, Joe Sinclaire. One of the members of that group recently shot me an email recently asking about how long a video she could reasonably add to an ebook — two minutes? Five minutes?

Here’s my answer:

Thanks for the question!
Starting with the understanding that only a few of the major outlets — notably Apple and Kobo — take ebooks with video, the answer is, whatever length you want — but obviously, you need to think about the size of the file.
The longer the video, the higher the resolution of the frame , the less compressed the video file, the more unwieldy the ebook. The biggest one I’ve ever uploaded was 100MB — it included three or four very short (30-40 second) videos. A 640×480 (aka Standard Definition, VGA, or 480p) video encoded as an MP4 file (the encoding that Apple requires) at a standard bitrate of about 1400kbps is about 40MB a minute. It adds up fast. I believe that Apple will turn down ebooks that are much bigger than 200MB. (Bigger than that and they become a pain to download and take up too much room on an iPhone/iPad.)
So five minutes is probably pushing it.
There are ways to shrink the video file size. You can use shorter clips. You can use a smaller frame size. You can compress the video by using a lower bitrate — just as you can squeeze a JPEG image by using higher compression/lower quality. But recognize that you’re making the video less watchable. They start looking like the old 3GP videos that folks used to shoot on flip phones.
A couple of additional things to consider: only include the video if it actually improves the book — not just because you think it would be cool. And recognize that — for now and for the foreseeable future — you won’t be able to upload the enhanced ebook to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or a number of the other outlets. And that none of those outlets will currently allow a book much bigger than 20MB.
A possible workaround: embedding YouTube or other online videos within the ebook as a “widget” — you hit the play triangle, and the ebook accesses the web, streaming the video from the cloud. In that case, it can be as long as you want it to be.

Now, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the others do kind of allow video — but it’s severely limited, and it’s only available to large commercial publishers.

And if you want to go another route, you can try to create the enhanced ebook as an app — though Apple has been strongly discouraging publishers from creating book apps that are more book than app.

In any case, here’s the thing: enhanced ebooks are still a technology in search of content and a market. We’ve had a lot of ideas about how to take advantage of the opportunities that the new technology offers, but readers have, for the most part, not been interested. Part of the problem, as I mentioned above and Digital Book World has pointed out, is that publishers can’t distribute the same content to different markets. And part of it is that, beyond the “Wow, that’s cool” effect, we’re still trying to figure out how best to leverage multimedia and scripting (adding small programs that can change the way that a book displays depending, for example, on a choice that the reader has made, or on changes in outside circumstances — the weather, the stock market, etc.). Outside of the the textbook market and children’s picture books, no one has really been able to get the readers to pay for the extra work that enhancing an ebook requires.

Enhanced ebooks aren’t going away; the technology is compelling, as are the opportunities it offers, for new kinds of books. But as happened with television, which Philo Farnsworth invented (in a San Francisco neighborhood that’s now home to dozens of tech startups), it may be a while until we have the content and the audience to make them worth producing.

8 thoughts on “How Long Can Video in Ebooks Be?”

  1. Seems to me inserting a widget or link works best for a couple of reasons. You avoid the format and file size issues and you can include additional text on YouTube or Vimeo (or whatever) to serve other purposes such as cross selling, up selling etc.

    If you want to use video, cutting the frame rate to 15 or so frames per second saves a lot of file size and gives good quality.

    Overall, my gut tells me people who READ prefer reading to video and reaching the fans of video is probably best done via YouTube…

    1. Agreed on all counts, Joel.

      There are cases where a video is worth several thousand words, however — specifically in non-fiction where sometimes even the most lucid prose doesn’t have the impact of a quick video clip.

      But most often, in the books that I’ve seen, the video has added little or nothing — except size.

      1. I disagree with the idea that people who enjoy video are different from the people who enjoy books in terms of preference. They are two different ways to express an idea. The key is to use the most effective expressive tool to suit the content. I am excited about the future of enhanced digital books, as I think we all are. What will the future hold and how will we bring it about?

        1. LOL – You have a lot of experience that i respect. My own approach is to provide information in multiple forms in hopes people will chose one or more.

          My experience has been, though, that some people will not read, some will not watch video, some can’t focus on audio by itself… so providing multiple formats and giving them choice seems the best answer… to me…

  2. I didn’t know Kobo allowed video embedded in text and I’m not sure how one would do that. I am not a computer programmer so must use iBooks Author for enhanced eBook writing, so Apple’s iBooks is the only game in town for me. There is much debate over when and why to embed video or sound into a book. I encountered this debate first about four years ago on a Linkedin group for eBook authors and still share with Tom Chmielewski of TEC publishing in Ann Arbor the same answer – it must be intrinsic to the book from its foundations, not an enhancement. This is why i dislike this label and prefer multimedia eBook

    1. In fact, iBooks Author creates lovely enhanced ebooks — but they can only be sold through Apple’s own iBooks Store.

      In order to embed audio or video in an epub at this point, you must be willing to get your hands dirty with the code, and you need to master the html5 audio and video tags. If you’re interested in that topic, check out ePub maven Liz Castro’s Audio and Video in ePub: Straight and to the Point. (Actually, check out any and all of her books — she’s wonderful at breaking down the nitty-gritty details in easy steps.)

      There are some online tools for creating fixed-format and otherwise enhanced ebooks — Aquafadas has one, as does AerBooks.

      And I haven’t tried creating an ehanced ebook within the latest version of InDesign, but it looks as if you can author a multimedia ebook that way.

      In any case, good luck!

  3. I’m glad to read on this topic, since it’s a big part of what our children’s publishing house The Secret Mountain is about – producing enhanced ebooks (exclusively for iPad right now) based on our storybook – music CD titles. We’ve succeeded in adding music and video while keeping the file size in check. Our objective is to “enhance” the child’s reading experience and not to turn the story into a movie or video game. I think the analogy with tv is a good one and that there’s a future for the format if it’s done right.

  4. Few things to note, you can upload over 200mb to Apple, just did this on Friday, no issues, just takes longer for customers to download. Also, you can do audio and video on amazon as a kdp self-pub, however testing it isn’t the best, amazon has made it more cumbersome to actually test it afterwards. You can also go over the 20mb for amazon, kobo, etc, done it a variety of times. Also, google play books supports audio and video in epub2 and epub3 and can be done by self-pubs. Streaming is only really ibooks, either ibooks author or ibooks via epub3.


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